I didn’t think I was good enough to be in the Jazz Band. I heard they had started a blues class, so I went in and sat in for the last two sessions of that class. I thought it was a very cool class. That is where I met Chris.
After those last two classes, I was still very intimidated. Everyone had to play solos in every song. The point of the class was to learn improvisation using blues scales over the entire form. All the tunes we played were compositions Chris wrote. I was so nervous to play solos in front of everybody, as I didn’t think my solos were very good. I had fun though, the music was different and everyone in the class was very cool. I wasn’t sure if I was going to attend the fall semester.
I heard a couple weeks later there was going to be a summer session, 6 classes then we would perform at the Portsmouth Blues Festival behind local blues musician, T.J. Wheeler. I had always wanted to attend the Blues Festival but it was always on a saturday and I had to work. I figured if I was in it, I would definitely get the day off! I signed up.
During these classes, again we played Chris’ works. He never wanted to do cover tunes in his class. We never did, because the class eventually played nothing but student compositions. He said to us in a class one day during this summer session,
“If any of you have ideas for a song, I’ll get together with you and help you write it out.”
My initial thought was “Yeah right, I’m going to write a tune?”
Also during these classes, Chris could see I was struggling with the whole solo thing and it wasn’t just me, others were too but Chris was so patient and so helpful with all of us. When it came time for the Blues Festival, we went up and played with T.J. Wheeler. We played 2 of Chris’ tunes and 2 by T.J.. As it got closer for me to play my solo, I had the last one in the song, I was scared to death. There were a lot of people out there and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. A few measures before my solo, Chris was standing behind me, he put his hand on my back and said to me,
“You got this!”
I needed that. I played a decent solo, there was a squeak or two, but overall it was a decent solo. I will be honest, I was relieved when we were done. But for those couple of minutes, I was on top of the world. After we were done, I got to enjoy the rest of the festival and watch some excellent performers. Some local who I knew and some famous, Amos Lee and Shameka Copeland. It was an awesome day.
I didn’t have any idea I would be attending the class in the fall. Over the next several weeks I started getting a theme in my head. I started writing it down on a piece of paper I drew the staff on. It was quite hideous looking! I figured the only way I would be able to get it played, was to go to the Blues Class in the fall. I thought I would take Chris up on his offer to help. When I did show my composition to Chris, looking back, that piece of paper had to be the most ridiculous thing he had ever seen. He did not laugh at it. He did say he couldn’t understand it. So he said,
“Let’s get together next week and I we’ll get this down”
When we got together he told me he was impressed with how fast I put something together. I was the first one to write an original piece for the class. I wrote in the saxophone key so he had to transpose it to concert key. He was so patient, if he was getting frustrated, he didn’t show it. Finally he said,
“Get your horn and play it for me, please”
So I did. It made it a whole lot easier for him. He presented it to the class and we played it. I didn’t want the class to know I wrote it until I saw the response. So when it was over, the class had a great response and Chris said,
“Do you guys like this tune?” and they all said yes and then he said “James wrote it!”
The response was a little more than I expected.
I would write several more compositions before Chris’ journey led him somewhere else. He would help me write them all down. I got better as time went on. At his going away party, I had written a tune for him as a present, and a thank you for all the help he gave me. He didn’t help write this one. I did have another instructor take a look at it. I wanted him to accompany me on guitar when I played it for Chris. It is called “Wise Man” a variation of his last name. One of the few not based on conversation, but more on emotion. I used his favorite chord, the tristan, and my favorite chord, the 7sus4. It is a tribute song to him. I did get to play it for him with Bryan (the other instructor) playing his guitar. The version below is what I recorded with my band last year, I hope you enjoy it!
I am sure whatever Chris is doing now, he is happy and I am also sure he continues touch the lives of others with his gift. Thank you Chris.